Friday, August 22, 2008

To Wine Own Self Be True

Bottle Shock has some of the qualities of the California wine whose emergence it celebrates: it is well-crafted, uncomplicated, and bathed in Napa Valley sunlight.

Directed by Randall Miller, Bottle Shock tells the story of the event that put California wines on the map: the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in which California wines unexpectedly prevailed over some of France’s finest vintages The film focuses on Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a struggling vintner who gave up his law practice to run a vineyard, cultivating grapes and meticulously bottling Chardonnay with the help of his long-haired, easygoing son Bo (Chris Pine), his young Mexican-American assistant Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), and a pretty intern, Sam (Rachael Taylor).

Barrett can scarcely keep the winery afloat until his Chardonnay is chosen to compete in the contest by Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a supercilious British wine expert and merchant in Paris, who has devised the contest as a means of confirming the superiority of French wines. On a visit to the Napa Valley, Spurrier is surprised by the quality of the American product. The movie recreates a mid-’70s vibe with an authenticity seldom seen onscreen, from the cars (an AMC Hornet!), the jeans, the haircuts and music (Doobie Brothers, Foghat, Bad Company). Nostalgia for the ’70s gets to you in unexpected ways; when was the last time you heard "Tolouse Street"?

The story folds with a minor romantic rivalry as Bo and Gustavo compete for the affections of Sam, a father-son conflict between Jim and Bo, who work out their differences with boxing gloves, and some amusing cross-cultural humor between the California growers and “the Brit” Spurrier (“Why don’t I like you?” says Jim, to which Spurrier responds, “Because I’m British and you’re not.”). The beautifully photographed northern California landscapes and the script’s detailed appreciation of the winemaking craft create a marvelously sensual experience; it certainly makes you want to drink the delicious-looking wines. An added benefit is that someone has finally made a movie about wine that cleanses the palate of the insipid, overpraised Sideways.

Originally appeared in slightly different form in the Cleveland Scene.

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